A White Slave Girl “Mulatto Raised by Charles Sumner” by Joan Gage

The Sto­ry Behind the Pho­to
When I began col­lect­ing antique pho­tographs about twen­ty years ago, like most col­lec­tors I start­ed out buy­ing every­thing I could find. Then, as I gained exper­tise, I began to spe­cial­ize, grav­i­tat­ing toward ear­ly images of chil­dren, twins (which I wrote about in a April 29, 2010 blog post: “Diane Arbus and Spooky Twins”) and pho­tographs reflect­ing atti­tudes toward race and slav­ery.  (For exam­ple, I wrote about the image of “The Scarred Back of a Slave Named Gor­don” in a
dat­ed Oct. 2, 2009. My infor­ma­tion about that image was also print­ed in the NY Times.

While col­lect­ing slave pho­tographs, I became fas­ci­nat­ed with the “white slave chil­dren of Louisiana” as I call the series of CDV (carte-de-vis­ite) pho­tos of freed chil­dren from New Orleans who appear to be com­plete­ly white. These small, card­board-mount­ed pho­tos were sold in great quan­ti­ties by abo­li­tion­ists dur­ing the Civ­il War. On the back of each pho­to was print­ed: “The nett [sic] pro­ceeds from the sale of these Pho­tographs will be devot­ed to the edu­ca­tion of col­ored peo­ple in the Depart­ment of the Gulf, now under the com­mand of Maj. Gen. Banks.”

I had so many ques­tions about these CDVs. First, why did the abo­li­tion­ists go down to the schools of freed slaves in New Orleans and pull out only those who appeared to be white, then send the chil­dren up to New York and Philadel­phia to be dressed in fine clothes and posed in sen­ti­men­tal scenes for pho­tos to sell?

Why did black-appear­ing chil­dren not get cho­sen for this? And how did these for­mer slave chil­dren feel about being tak­en away from their moth­ers, parad­ed up north for the media like zoo ani­mals and then sent back down South? (They even got kicked out of their hotel in Philadel­phia when the own­er dis­cov­ered they weren’t “real­ly” white.)

Through research, I’ve learned the answers to some of these ques­tions about the Louisiana CDVs, but that sto­ry is for anoth­er day when I’ll have enough space to ana­lyze this ear­ly attempt to raise funds and arouse anti-slav­ery sen­ti­ment through the new-fan­gled “sci­en­tif­ic” process of pho­tog­ra­phy.

Today I’m only focus­ing on one pho­to­graph that was made about nine years before the Civ­il War CDVs. It’s a ninth-plate daguerreo­type of a lit­tle girl in a plaid dress that I bought on E-Bay in 2000.

The sell­er, from Ten­nessee, includ­ed with this cased image infor­ma­tion on where it was found. “This…photograph was pur­chased at Headley’s Auc­tion in Win­ches­ter VA, July 1997. It came…out of the “Ash­grove” estate in Vien­na, VA. The house orig­i­nat­ed as a hunt­ing lodge in 1740 …and was sold to James Sher­man in 1850, who would nev­er own or hire a slave. He died in 1865 and passed it to his son, Capt. Franklin Sher­man, Tenth Mich. Cav­al­ry. Capt Sherman’s wife Car­o­line (Alvord, a native of Mass.) came to the coun­try in 1865 to teach the chil­dren of the new­ly freed slaves.”

I put this image aside in 2000 along with the papers the buy­er had sent me about the Ash­ford plan­ta­tion, and for­got all about them.

Then, last Novem­ber, I had a vis­it from Greg Fried, a pro­fes­sor at Suf­folk Uni­ver­si­ty in Boston who want­ed to scan some of my pho­tographs for a new web site he was prepar­ing called “Mir­ror of Race” (www.mirrorofrace.org.) I showed him the Louisiana CDVs and the daguerreo­type of the “Sum­n­er-raised” child. After he left, I went on Google and typed in the words “Charles Sum­n­er” and “slave”. I dis­cov­ered a short arti­cle from the New York Times dat­ed March 9, 1855, which read:

A WHITE SLAVE FROM VIRGINIA. We received a vis­it yes­ter­day from an inter­est­ing lit­tle girl, — who, less than a month since, was a slave belong­ing to Judge NEAL, of Alexan­dria, Va. Our read­ers will remem­ber that we late­ly pub­lished a let­ter, addressed by Hon. CHARLES SUMNER, to some friends in Boston, accom­pa­ny­ing a daguerreo­type which that gen­tle­man had for­ward­ed to his friends in this city, and which he described as the por­trait of a real “Ida May,” — a young female slave, so white as to defy the acutest judge to detect in her fea­tures, com­plex­ion, hair, or gen­er­al appear­ance, the slight­est trace of Negro blood. It was this child that vis­it­ed our office, accom­pa­nied by CHARLES H. BRAINARD, in whose care she was placed by Mr. SUMNER, for trans­mis­sion to Boston. Her his­to­ry is briefly as fol­lows: Her name is MARY MILDRED BOTTS; her father escaped from the estate of Judge NEAL, Alexan­dria, six years ago and took refuge in Boston. Two years since he pur­chased his free­dom for $600, his wife and three chil­dren being still in bondage. The good feel­ing of his Boston friends induced them to sub­scribe for the pur­chase of his fam­i­ly, and three weeks since, through the agency of Hon. CHARLES SUMNER, the pur­chase was effect­ed, $800 being paid for the fam­i­ly. They cre­at­ed quite a sen­sa­tion in Wash­ing­ton, and were pro­vid­ed with a pas­sage in the first class cars in their jour­ney to this city, whence they took their way last evening by the Fall Riv­er route to Boston. The child was exhib­it­ed yes­ter­day to many promi­nent indi­vid­u­als in the City, and the gen­er­al sen­ti­ment, in which we ful­ly con­cur, was one of aston­ish­ment that she should ever have been held a slave. She was one of the fairest and most indis­putable white chil­dren that we have ever seen.

This dis­cov­ery got my adren­a­line going. I googled “Mary Mil­dred Botts” and learned that the white-appear­ing slave child who was admired by the New York Times was dis­cussed in a 2008 book called Rais­ing Freedom’s Child: Black Chil­dren and Visions of the Future after Slav­ery, writ­ten by a Uni­ver­si­ty of New Orleans pro­fes­sor, Mary Niall Mitchell, who (small world!) was some­one I had com­mu­ni­cat­ed with six years ago while try­ing to research the Louisiana CDV’s.  I imme­di­ate­ly ordered the book from Ama­zon.  

When it arrived, I was stunned to find on page 73 a pho­to of Mary Botts that was the mir­ror image of MY dag. (The one in the book was from the col­lec­tion of the Mass­a­chu­setts His­tor­i­cal Soci­ety.) Prof. Mitchell gave more expla­na­tion about why this young girl was pho­tographed and brought north by Charles Sum­n­er.

“By the eve of the Civ­il War, abo­li­tion­ists rec­og­nized the poten­tial of white-look­ing chil­dren for stir­ring up anti­slav­ery sentiment…Although it was the image of a raggedy, moth­er­less Top­sy that view­ers might have expect­ed to see in a pho­to­graph of a slave girl, it was the ‘inno­cent’, ‘pure,’ and ‘well-loved’ white child who appeared, a child who need­ed the pro­tec­tion of the north­ern white pub­lic.  

The spon­sors of sev­en-year-old Mary Mil­dred Botts, a freed child from Vir­ginia, may have been the first to cap­i­tal­ize on these ideas, as ear­ly as 1855. Her sto­ry also marks the begin­ning of efforts to use pho­tog­ra­phy (in Mary Botts’s case, the daguerreo­type, as the carte-de-vis­ite for­mat was not yet avail­able) in the ser­vice of rais­ing sen­ti­ment and sup­port for the abo­li­tion­ist cause.’’(Bold-facing mine.)


“…In his own char­ac­ter­i­za­tion of Mary Botts,” Mitchell con­tin­ues, “Sum­n­er set a pat­tern that oth­er abo­li­tion­ists would fol­low. In a let­ter print­ed in both the Boston Tele­graph and the New York Dai­ly Times, he com­pared Mary Botts to a fic­tion­al white girl who had been kid­napped and enslaved, the pro­tag­o­nist in Mary Hay­den Pike’s anti­slav­ery nov­el Ida May:  ‘She is bright and intelligent—another Ida May,’ [Sum­n­er wrote] ‘I think her pres­ence among us (in Boston) will be more effec­tive than any speech I can make.’”
This com­par­i­son of Mary Botts to the fic­tion­al kid­napped white girl worked well for Sum­n­er and the Abo­li­tion­ists and made the lit­tle freed slave quite a local celebri­ty. Prof. Mitchell quotes the diary of a Quak­er woman named Han­nah Marsh Inman who saw Mary Botts at  a meet­ing house in Worces­ter, MA (which hap­pens to be where I live now).  On March 1, 1855, Han­nah wrote: “Evening all went to the soiree at the Hall.  Lit­tle Ida May, the white slave was there from Boston.”
Sum­n­er real­ized that he was on to a good thing and cir­cu­lat­ed daguerreo­types of the child to prove her white­ness to those who might doubt. (Keep in mind—the daguerreo­type process was the first one ever made available—by Daguerre in 1839– and the images “writ­ten by the sun” on the sil­vered cop­per plate were con­sid­ered unde­ni­able sci­en­tif­ic proof of the sitter’s appear­ance.)  

Sum­n­er passed a daguerreo­type of Mary Botts around the Mass­a­chu­setts State Leg­is­la­ture “as an illus­tra­tion of slav­ery” and sent one to John. A. Andrews, the gov­er­nor of Mass­a­chu­setts.

Only a year after parad­ing Mary Botts through New York, Boston and Worces­ter and dub­bing her “The real Ida May”, Charles Sumner’s devout abo­li­tion­ist views  led him to a crip­pling dis­as­ter, when, in 1856, he was so bad­ly beat­en on the floor of the Sen­ate by South Car­oli­na Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Pre­ston Brooks, who broke a cane over his head, that it would take years of ther­a­py before Sum­n­er could return to the Sen­ate.
As soon as I real­ized that my dag of Mary Botts was one of the images used by Sum­n­er him­self to advance the abo­li­tion­ist cause, I got into an excit­ed e-mail cor­re­spon­dence with the book’s author, Pro­fes­sor Mitchell, and Prof. Greg Fried, who point­ed out some­thing I’d for­got­ten: an adver­tis­ing card on the back of my image showed that it was “Tak­en with the Dou­ble Cam­era For 25 Cents by Taber & Co., suc­ces­sors to Tyler & Co. Cor. Win­ter & Wash­ing­ton Sts. Boston”, while the mir­ror image belong­ing to the Mass­a­chu­setts His­tor­i­cal Soci­ety was tak­en by Julian Van­ner­son, prob­a­bly in Rich­mond, Vir­ginia, and seems sharp­er than mine, so mine must be a copy dag. (The only way to copy a daguerreo­type is to take a new daguerreo­type of it. Each daguerreo­type is one of a kind. Taber’s price of 25 cents sounds afford­able, but at the time, the aver­age work­ing man made only about a dol­lar a day.)
Prof. Mitchell is cur­rent­ly work­ing on a book about Mary Botts that will tell more about this for­mer slave’s life, includ­ing the dra­ma of how Sum­n­er pur­chased her and spir­it­ed her out of Vir­ginia, how he intro­duced her to the media and soci­ety as a liv­ing advo­cate for the abo­li­tion­ist cause, and how her fam­i­ly set­tled in the free black com­mu­ni­ty in Boston.
I’m eager to learn the rest of the sto­ry, but, for now, it’s enough of a thrill just to know that the daguerreo­type, tak­en in 1855, that is part of my col­lec­tion may rep­re­sent one of the first efforts EVER to use the mod­ern dis­cov­ery of pho­tog­ra­phy to touch people’s emo­tions and change their minds.  This small image of a sev­en-year-old girl may be one of the first times pho­tog­ra­phy was used for pro­pa­gan­da (anoth­er is the famous “Brand­ed Hand” por­trait of Cap­tain Jonathan Walk­er, also in the Mir­ror of Race exhi­bi­tion), but it was cer­tain­ly not the last.